Australia penalizes parents who don’t vaccinate kids — should Canada do the same?

Socioeconomic indicators have been shown to be closely related to a child's health, a new study out of the University of Manitoba has found. Getty Images

The Australian government has tightened penalties for parents who don’t vaccinate their children under its existing “No Jab, No Pay” policy.

The tougher version of the policy, which kicked in July 1, stipulates that the country’s Family Tax Benefit Part A payments will be reduced by about $28AUD biweekly for each child that doesn’t meet immunization requirements.

READ MORE: These are the Canadians less likely to vaccinate — and why they’re hesitant

The reduction in payments is meant to be a “constant reminder for parents to keep their children’s [immunization] up to date,” a news release from the government explained.

It added that immunizing children from “vaccine-preventable diseases” is important not only for the individual children, but also those they interact with.

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The news release added that the policy, which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced in 2016, has led to 246,000 children being vaccinated.

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The policy leaves room for exemptions that are approved by medical practitioners for health reasons.

While the government says the policy has led to a boost in vaccinations, Julie Bettinger, a researcher at BC Children’s Hospital and associate professor at the University of British Columbia, explained that it’s difficult to track exactly why parents vaccinate.

“When we try to look for evidence, to see what’s the impact of these policies, there has really not been a lot of good evaluation. There is not a lot of good research that says, ‘yes, these policies work.'”

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What other countries have done

Australia isn’t the only country with strict measures against parents who refuse to vaccinate children.

Italy and France have made several vaccinations mandatory for children. Germany has a law that requires schools to report parents who haven’t vaccinated children.

U.S. states require children’s vaccinations to be up to date before school enrollment, with some exemptions such as medical or religious reasons.

What does Canada do — and what more can be done?

Canada doesn’t have national penalties for parents who don’t vaccinate their children.

Some provinces, such as Ontario and New Brunswick, require children to have certain vaccinations when registering for school. Some provinces don’t have any such rules.

READ MORE: Pregnant women who get flu shot reduce baby’s health risks

Any penalties Canadians could face in the future would likely be determined by provinces, Bettinger added.

While these policies often have strong support in the countries in which they are enforced, they can have “unintended effects” that are important to consider, Bettinger said.

WATCH: Changing minds on kids and vaccinations

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“Do those kids whose parents don’t want them to be vaccinated, are they now being home-schooled, are they outside of the system?” she asked.

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In Australia’s case, it could potentially lead to families struggling to make ends meet with less child support money.

“Gentle policy nudges” are more realistic and widely supported, according to research Bettinger has done in B.C.

READ MORE: Pregnant women should get flu and whooping cough vaccines, new guidelines recommend 

“Things such as showing whether or not your child has been vaccinated upon school entry — not making them be vaccinated, but just providing documentation,” she explained, referring to some of those nudges.

Bettinger said Canada need to be careful not to penalize parents for not vaccinating children until all barriers to health-care access are removed.

“We know right now that there are issues to do with access — it has nothing to do with hesitancy.”

“It has nothing to do with an individual’s desire to have their kid immunized,” she said. “Sometimes they just can’t get their kid immunized.”

Bettinger highlighted several possible barriers: Those who live in geographically remote areas may have difficulty accessing medical clinics. Others, such as new immigrants, may face difficulties due to language or cultural barriers. Some may simply not be able to take their child to a clinic while working multiple jobs.

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Canadians’ overall impressions on vaccination

A survey of 1,029 Canadians released by Health Canada in June took an in-depth look into parents’ awareness, attitudes and beliefs when it comes to vaccinations for children between zero to six years of age.

If found that the overwhelming majority of Canadian parents get their children vaccinated — but that doesn’t mean they don’t have at least some concerns over safety and effectiveness.

Concerned parents cited several reasons — some common ones included possible allergic reactions, a lack of trust in the pharmaceutical, side effects, toxic ingredients, and a lack of testing on the vaccinations.

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